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Dene Nation joins others in call for tailings breach accountability


Dene National Chief Gerald Antoine has added his voice to those demanding accountability for tailings spills at an Alberta oil sands mine.

Industrial wastewater has been seeping out of a tailings pond at Imperial Oil’s Kearl oil sands project, north of Fort McMurray, since May of 2022.

A second spill of roughly 5.3 million litres of industrial wastewater was reported in February – one of the province’s largest tailings spills.

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Several communities downstream of the spills say they were either not told about the leak or the severity of the situation.

“The immediate and long-term environmental impacts of this event are severe and far-reaching,” Antoine said in a press release on Friday, declaring he stood in solidarity with Hereditary Chief Sydney Halcrow and Grand Chief Arthur Noskey of the First Nations of Treaty 8 Alberta.

“The government needs immediate and urgent action to protect people and the environment. Identify the causes of Imperial’s tailings breaches and find a resolution immediately.”

“Our home, our land, must be protected at all costs,” he added. “Our family and our people must be respected.”

So far, authorities say water at Fort Chipewyan’s water treatment plant shows no signs of contamination.

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Preliminary test results show water at the treatment plant is safe and meets all Canadian drinking water standards, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo stated in an update on Thursday.

Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, in a submitted photo.

Usually, the water treatment plant draws from Lake Athabasca. “Out of an abundance of caution,” the municipality stopped the intake on February 27, the update stated.

Testing conducted by Imperial and submitted to the Alberta Energy Regulator last summer found that wastewater from the ongoing leak exceeded provincial and federal guidelines for contaminants, including iron, arsenic, hydrocarbons, sulphate and sulphide.

Cautionary measures will continue until further notice, the municipality stated.

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During that time, the lake intake will be used intermittently every few weeks to fill three raw water storage ponds at the plant. Once full, the intake will be closed and water in the ponds will be treated and tested. The municipality will also continue testing at the intake.

On Thursday, NWT environment minister Shane Thompson met with Sonya Savage, his counterpart in Alberta, to discuss the spills. The purpose of the meeting was to start a dispute resolution mechanism built into the transboundary agreement.

Shane Thompson responds to a question from Katrina Nokleby in the NWT legislature on February 14, 2023
Shane Thompson responds to a question from Katrina Nokleby in the NWT legislature on February 14, 2023.

Addressing the Legislative Assembly after the meeting, Thompson said the two ministers discussed the importance of shared water, transparency and working together to improve implementation of a transboundary water agreement between the two, among other topics.

“I can advise you that the Alberta minister recognized that there was a failure to communicate on the issue,” he told other NWT MLAs.

“There was a lot of finger-pointing through this whole process, and I can tell you she just found out this February.”

Thompson said Savage committed to sharing information on the seepage and spills in future.

The two also committed to a face-to-face meeting in April, he said.